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Black and white still from the film "Your Children Come Back to You" shows a young girl with short braids. She raises her hands up and turns her palms towards the camera.

Issue 001 Fall 2020 Essays

Rupture and Reparative Modes of Care from the Women of the LA Rebellion

by Jheanelle Brown

Actress Angela Burnett. Your Children Come Back to You (1979) film still courtesy of director Allie Sharon Larkin.

I’m thinking a lot about rupture right now, but truthfully I’m always thinking about it.

I’m thinking a lot about rupture right now, but truthfully I’m always thinking about it. Rupture orders my fractured diasporic identity, my coming to terms with forms of privilege that I benefit from, and my processing of trauma. This rupture was born in the hold of a ship and manifests in ways that Black folks still do not comprehend. Our current global moment bears testament to a certain type of rupture. While it may even prove to be a moment that ruptures the anti-Black, patriarchal, capitalist, carceral, settler state/world, I’m not that hopeful. With that said, I do find pockets of hope in the care I feel from Black women and femmes. Ethics of care form a deep narrative axis around which films from the women of the LA Rebellion orbit. These reparative modes of care serve as study for how to contend with rupture and carve out future worlds.

My sister and I recently discussed Alile Sharon Larkin’s film Your Children Come Back to You (1979) and Omah Diegu’s (formerly known as Ijeoma Iloputaife) African Woman, U.S.A. (1980), as two films that elevate modes of care in women/femme-centered families while representing two different types of rupture. Larkin’s Project One film1 Your Children Come Back to You positions the rupture born from the Transatlantic Slave Trade as a metaphor for the oppositional assimilationist and Pan-Africanist tendencies within Black families. The film’s protagonist, Tovi, is a young girl and proxy for Alile herself. She is being raised by her father’s partner, Lani, with the assistance of public benefits, while her father is fighting for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Her paternal aunt Chris is a light-skinned, wealthy woman who takes pride in excess and tokenism. The first time that Chris appears in the film, Tovi asks her if she is adopted. Tovi poses the same question to Chris several times throughout the film. In fact everything that Tovi says is deeply considered and emotionally incisive, especially when she retells a story she learned in school:

Once there was a proud mother. She was rich and proud ’cause she had many, many children. One day strangers came to her home and they stole her children away from her. They took her children far away, all over the world. They beat her children. They made her children do all of their work. Many children died right away. Many died later. The strangers told the children that they were orphans, that they had no mother, that they were bastards, that they had no father. But that sun is the children’s father. He stayed with them wherever they went. He made their skin black and smooth. He beamed down into their heads until they remembered. Africa is their mother. We are her children. Me and you. All over the world strangers stole children. All over the world strangers stole the pride of mothers. He takes their houses and their land too. . . . The stranger is white, but everywhere he goes he adopts . . .  Black children. And they help to keep the family divided. And the mother cries and cries for hundreds of years until the children come home and the strangers leave.

Saidiya Hartman states in Lose Your Mother: a Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, “The most universal definition of the slave is a stranger. . . . Contrary to popular belief, Africans did not sell their brothers and sisters in slavery. They sold strangers: those outside the web of kin and clan relationships. . . . In order to betray your race, you first had to imagine yourself as one.”2 Larkin positions Chris as a Black person who relates to unassimilated Black people—those who are generally poorer and darker than her—as strangers. Tovi sees this clearly. In fact, Tovi is a proxy for Larkin herself as a young woman.3

Actresses Pamela Jones ( R ) and Alfreda Masters ( L ). African Woman USA (1980) film still courtesy of director Omah Diegu.

At the close of the film, when Tovi, Lani, and Chris find out about Michael’s true work in Angola as a member of the MPLA and that he is a martyr, they embrace, and Chris offers to take care of the whole family, including Lani and Michael’s unborn child. Although their material needs will be provided for by the excess of token exceptionalism, it stands to note that women are the only providers in this film. More importantly, they make meaning of the world, and their place in it as Black girls and women, through their relationships with one another.

Omah Diegu’s African Woman, U.S.A., represents the rupture born from postcolonial migration and broader diasporic dispersal. The film is a reckoning with the postcolonial realities of Nigerian university student Nkoli and her daughter Uju (woman, Black, African, foreigner). Nkoli and Uju find themselves to be victims of two different but connected forms of violence.

Having just received a work permit, Nkoli interviews for a design job with a white American man whose office is adorned with modern art. He fails to understand that “African art has given a lot to modern Western sculpture and painting,” which she points out during their meeting. This scene is intercut with Uju’s concurrent suffering of an act of intraracial sexual violence at the hands of an adult man. Nkoli returns home to police officers informing her about Uju’s victimization. Traumatized, she runs off into the night. When the officers ask her to come back and help them find the rapist, she cries in desperation, “Which one?” While the comparison between these two forms of violence (intraracial sexual violence and colonial violence/theft) may come off as overdetermined, it bears a point that is still relevant today when one considers intraracial sexual and mortal violence against Black trans women and the ongoing art repatriation efforts from Europe to Africa. Nkoli and Uju live with Nkoli’s friend Inge; Nkoli’s husband is dead. Their home is a place of love, accountability, friendship, humor, affirmation, and, in my reading, co-parenting. This family is the only example of love and a true ethic of care in the film.

Ethics of care form a deep narrative axis around which films from the women of the L.A. Rebellion orbit.

Many more examples of potent and deeply manifested fugitivity and futurity can be found in the broader oeuvre of the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers. Julie Dash’s titular African nun ponders her role in Western religious imperialism in The Diary of an African Nun (1977), an adaptation of Alice Walker’s short story of the same name. Melvonna Ballenger reflects on the liberatory effects of rain in Rain (Nyesha) (1978). M. Stormé Bright presents the stories of single parents in The Single Parent: Images in Black (1978). Carroll Parrott Blue elevated the painter Varnette Honeywood’s practice of creating a historical record in Varnette’s World: a Study of a Young Artist (1979). Barbara McCullough incisively critiques Los Angeles’s violent infrastructural development while elevating the power of ritual in Water Ritual #1: an Urban Rite of Purification (1979) and communes with pioneering Black artists in Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space (1981). Jacqueline Frazier narrativizes the under-acknowledged criminalization of Black girls in schools in Shipley Street (1981). Shirikiana Aina documents the social and economic rupture of gentrification in Washington, DC, in Brick by Brick (1982). Zeinabu irene Davis centers women’s relationships as spiritual in Cycles (1989), bears witness to self-described “trumpetiste” Clora Bryant’s life in Trumpetistically, Clora Bryant (1989), and presents a loving portrait of LA Rebellion filmmakers in Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA (2015). O. Funmilayo Makarah crafts a deceptively simple early digital piece highlighting important cultural spaces in Los Angeles in L.A. in my mind . . .  (2006). They hold space, either explicitly or through alternative readings, for critiques of respectability and capitalist excess, as well as queer families. They can also be read as examples of creating against the archive4 and being in the undercommons.5 They are bearers of cultural memory and a source of wisdom for moving forward, past the rupture that we may feel deep within ourselves.

Liberation is thrashing deep within our psyches and communal being, demanding to be realized. Listen to Black women.


1. At UCLA, the Project One film was to be written, directed, and edited by incoming students before taking a production class. These were expected to be completed during their first academic quarter.
2. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: a Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), 5.
3. “In Conversation: Alile Sharon Larkin, Cauleen Smith, and dana washington with Jheanelle Brown.” Art + Practice. 2019.
4. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).
5. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).